Tav Falco :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

More than four decades into it, punk gentleman Tav Falco is still on the road, still tapping into flowing channels of primal rock & roll. Fresh off last year’s release of Club Car Zodiac, he’s united The Panther Burns for the “Rogue Male” tour, and plotting a course through the U.S. Ahead of the shows, Jared Artaud of The Vacant Lots/Alan Vega Archive caught up with Falco to discuss his recent work, relationship with Alex Chilton, and the fractured state of the union.

Aquarium Drunkard: I discovered your music some years ago when my band The Vacant Lots were on tour in Europe. It was 4 AM after a late night in Lisbon with Sonic Boom, he said to me, “I have something to show you.” He went into the other room and grabbed a Tav Falco record and put on the track “Money Talks.” A few bars into that track and I was instantly hooked. As soon as I got home I went to my local record shop and got everything I could find by you and the Panther Burns. Can you talk a little bit about what got you into music in the first place, what bands inspired you, and what has kept you in it after all these years?

Tav Falco: Surprised to know that Sonic Boom was listening to “Money Talks.” That number was a demo by Mac Rice in Detroit. My manager, Jud Phillips Jr., introduced us. “I’m gonna buy me a wife, I’m gonna buy me a job, gonna buy me a policeman so I won’t be robbed, money talks.” What has kept me in it all this time, you ask? Well, I’m beginning to notice some improvement, Jared.

AD: In the early days of Panther Burns, Alex Chilton was a member. How did you two cross paths in Memphis and what was it like working with him in the studio and on stage? Looking back, what comes to mind when you think about him?

Tav Falco: A gifted, complicated, sardonic, articulate, funny, ruthless, and utterly charming artist. There was no finer singer, in my opinion, and no finer guitarist than Alex Chilton. Alex first saw me as a lone performer who chain sawed an electric guitar in half onstage at the grand Orpheum Theater in Memphis while incanting “The Bourgeois Blues” up to a moment of frenzy and then tearing apart the instrument. There is a whole chapter devoted to him in my book, Ghosts Behind The Sun, Splendor, Enigma, and Death: Mondo Memphis Vol I.

AD: I really liked Club Car Zodiac that you released last year on ORG Music. What was the process like recording that album? And what is the process like for you making albums?

Tav Falco: That record was instigated by a former Panther Burns bass player, Mike Watt in San Pedro. Club Car Zodiac is a Black Friday Record Store Day official release, that is bristling with dirges, tangos, and torchy ballads. We recorded remotely during the height of the pandemic. I ordered a large diaphragm studio mic, and suddenly I was in complete control of recording my own vocals and could merrily record as many takes as I pleased. It was like making a self-portrait, a selfie even. 

AD: How have you found making albums recently with newer digital technology? Have you discovered any limitations or liberating elements in this modern way of recording?

Tav Falco: Actually, I still prefer analogue recording on ferrous oxide tape with its inherent tape noise hissing like a barrel of rattlesnakes. Digital recording—in all of its sterile, binary frequency capture—is at best an effort to emulate analogue tone quality. Why bother? Just take more time and indulge in the analogue process. It’s the same with the process of filmmaking. We shot my Urania Trilogy of films entirely on 16mm motion picture film. Sure, the process was far more tedious and demanding than digital, and there were more limitations with less margins for error than digital capture, but the filmic image is so graphically beautiful in its tonalities. I am willing to face the challenges film presents in order to achieve a more aesthetically rewarding image on the screen. Film is a craft. Digital is computer science. I plan to tour and screen The Urania Trilogy of intrigue films next year. 

AD: As the music industry constantly evolves and changes how has that impacted your work over the years? Do you feel you’ve benefited from the newer technology & social media?

Tav Falco: We all revel in instant gratification. Cyber technology affords an instantaneous manifestation in capture, playback, and transmission both recorded, live, and archived. But there is no Zen in this spew. One might compare the constraints in meter and form of a poetic sonnet versus a honking free verse jazz chorus. Both have their virtues. However, in a pinch, I have been known to reach for a digital device for the ease of use it offers. 
Social media has accelerated our dialogue with one another, allowing covens to be formed among its participants. Yet there were great poets and artists long before the advent even of electricity. Michelangelo did not have social media as we know it. Leonardo da Vinci did not have a press agent. I am looking forward to the day when I no longer require social media and cyber campaigns to advance my presence and my work. For a while, Astor Piazzolla and I had the same agent in the Netherlands. The agent told me that he placed nothing more than a tiny two-line item in the local newspaper to announce Piazzolla, and the rooms were packed.

Tav Falco: If the nuclear button was pressed and only one Tav Falco record could be preserved for all time, which one would you choose? 

Tav Falco: That is kind of a loaded question. Although none of my records are a triumph in totality, there are certain tracks on each that attain heightened moments I am after. Each feature particular tracks which reach a level of hysteria – whether calm and restrained, or feral and turbulent — that elevates and bonds the listener to the artist in discreet subliminal ecstasies never to be forgotten. 

If I were to choose which album would be preserved, I suppose it would be Cabaret of Daggers (2018), which we recorded in Rome. I would choose it for its range of genres—dance to balladry, blues to Go-Go grooves, to anthemic homage. Also, for its emotional heft and for the high degree of musicianship that it delivers. 

AD: You’re heading out on an extensive tour right now. What are you looking forward to the most on this tour? And what was the last couple Pandemic years like for you? How did you get through all of that?

Tav Falco: On this upcoming Panther Burns tour—arm-in-arm with my comrades Mario Monterosso, our lead guitarist, record producer, and arranger; bassist Giuseppe Sangirardi; and drummer Walter Brunetti—I’m going to sing, dance, and celebrate like an Aztec sun worshipper. For our 40th anniversary tour in 2019, we were concerned with incendiary political issues: the massacre in Gaza, “Doomsday Baby”; drone warfare, “Whistle Blower Blues”; lynching, “Strange Fruit”; and a foul, philistine presidency, “New World Order Blues.” Most of these issues have not gone away, but I have addressed them. No one who has heard or seen evidence of these songs of protest will ever forget. They were reminded, they were confronted, they were accused, and they were found guilty—none of us are innocent. Rather, we are all complicit in some degree, especially  when we are silent in the face of travesty. As a former Panther Burns guitarist in Atlanta recently commented, guns in America are more important than children.

As for the pandemic, I was cloistered in my garret in the theater district of Vienna through mostly long dark winters. It was a lonely time. It was forbidden for partners to meet and dance. I could no longer dance the Tango in the salons and milongas. Instead, I began to study solo dance with a cane and matelote. Every day I practiced at home, and developed song and dance routines to retro recordings. When the curfews were lifted under precautionary measures, I went to Rome and performed what I had taught myself in the cabaret La Conventicola Degli Ultramoderni. I was given an identity, L’Ultimo Gigolo (“The Last Gigolo”).

AD: You’re a musical hero to many, including myself, and you’ve made it through many decades in the music industry. What’s your secret to survival, and for newer bands what advice do you have for the next generation of artists?

Tav Falco: I should think I am no hero to anybody—but I am an icon of sorts. A man with a strange voice, a kind of Arkansas croak. Yet I have a vision, I have instinct, and I am not afraid to risk it all and go a little mad on stage – not in an aggressive way, but in a subliminal way. 

If I were to offer a word of direction, I’d say listen to your unconscious mind. Stir up the dark waters and dream. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know what you’re doing. I don’t. There is an instinctual navigation mechanism inside you that works best when you dream. All that I do ultimately comes from there. A place inside where dreams grow and morph into other dreams. As Jean Genet noted, dreams are nursed in darkness. Then my dreams, epiphanies, ideas, vagaries, and even melodies are exposed to the light. Soon they develop into something—an image, a word, a song. Try it.

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